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The Searchers

Review Written by: Bill Slocum
Film: A+

Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Frank S. Nugent
Based on the book by: Alan Le May
Produced by: C.V. Whitney
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, John Qualen, Olive Carey, Ken Curtis
Studio: Warner Brothers Pictures

Hyperbole comes easy dealing with John Ford movies, but never so naturally as here. The Searchers is a pluperfect mix of character, story, setting, text and subtext that advanced the art of motion pictures by influencing generations of filmmakers and remains a singularly entertaining experience for the first-time viewer.

John Wayne plays one of the titular characters, a hard-bitten Confederate named Ethan Edwards who rides after a pair of kidnapped girls, the only surviving members of his brother's immediate family after a Comanche raid. With him is Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a one-eighth Cherokee Ethan's brother adopted for whom Ethan bears little affection, given his distrust of Indians. Pawley enjoys Ethan's company as much as any part-Indian would, but he is worried about how the girls will fare, both at the Comanches' hands and, if it comes to that, at Ethan's. Wayne's performance is a marvel of acting economy. At one point, Ethan, Martin and the fiancÚ of one of the girls come across a split in the trail of the Comanches they are following. Martin and the other man try to figure out why four braves broke off. Ethan knows, and as you read Wayne's face, and hear the dryness in his voice, you do, too. It's a small moment, in a performance containing many larger ones, but gives reason to single out Ethan for your attention, and even affection, despite the many ways the character resists such identification.

Ford's direction is the perfect complement to Wayne's performance, teasing out the cruel nature of the Old West by subtle, inexorable degrees. Seeing a house under siege at the film's beginning is to understand the terror that was everyday reality for America's pioneer stock. Yet the raw beauty of the landscape is with us in every frame, to an almost supernatural degree. I think some people misunderstand this as a film about racism. There is racism, though it cuts both ways and Ethan is not always the worst exemplar of it. Rather, it's a film about society and the individual, long a Ford concern. I would argue that Edwards is not an anti-hero (Certainly Wayne played harder characters, like in Red River and Sands Of Iwo Jima, where he actually engages the viewer's dislike more than here. He even played Genghis Khan once.) but more a complicated protagonist because he won't accept the civilizing influence of society.

An unreconstructed Johnny Reb (the only reason Ford had for setting the film in Texas when it so clearly was made farther north), Edwards dismisses oath-taking to the U.S. and tells Ward Bond's parson character to quit yammering his funeral oration when there's Injun killing to be done. Yet such rejected pieties, both for America and a Christian ideal, are at the heart of what The Searchers is about, the former evidenced in the words of Olive Carey's Mrs. Jorgensen about being a "Texican" ("Some day, this country's gonna be a fine, good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.") and the latter most visible at the end of the picture, which is more about saving Ethan than anyone else.

At the same time, there is action and humor to keep things hopping. Vera Miles does great work playing Martin's sometime lover, the object of one of Ford's grandest, goofiest fight scenes, and Hank Worden thanks you kindly as a bald Indian fighter with a love for rocking chairs and a mindset crazy enough to ride with Ethan stride for stride.

Is this Wayne's best film? Is it Ford's? I don't rightly know, not having seen all of them yet, but they sure set themselves one hell of a hurdle to jump here. Ford makes his direction a marvel of scene-setting from beginning to end (starting things off with a door opening and ending with a door closing), while Wayne just grabs you by the throat with his passion and anger and doesn't let you go until you know, like Martin (Hunter's performance is the most criminally under-appreciated thing about this film, he's literally the backbeat of the whole film), that he is going to be okay.

It's not the finding out that's the trick, but the getting there and in large ways as in small, The Searchers makes for a trip worth taking.

John Wayne at his finest in John Ford's The Searchers.
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